For six and two-thirds innings on Monday night, the Reds’ Brandon Finnegan looked like Cole Hamels reincarnate—or, I guess, Koufax—while he baffled the Cubs’ litany of sluggers and held them to nary a hit. Perhaps this rekindled concerns about the Cubs’ poor 2015 versus left-handers, a team that, against lefties, featured a poor .691 OPS and sank to the bottom in most offensive categories. Luckily, Jason Heyward briefly played the hero in his pinstripes-clad Wrigley Field debut, stroking a hard liner to right and springing the Cubs to within one run of the Reds, who had nibbled at an off-kilter Jon Lester.
Heyward and his fellow left-handed bats on the Cubs hope to improve the club’s holistic stats versus southpaws in 2016, a task aided by the departures of Chris Coghlan and 2015’s “Bad” Starlin Castro, as well as the signing of Ben Zobrist. But there are a host of factors that contribute to a team’s success or failure against left-handed pitching, and three in particular will be the key to a Cubs team that mashes all pitching this season.
The first and most obvious way for the Cubs to improve against lefties is, well, to each individually hit better against lefties. While this may border on the tautological, how Cubs’ hitters could improve individually is only part of the team’s overall performance against left-handers. The Platonic Ideal for improvement is Anthony Rizzo, whose transformation from a near-automatic out into a genuine force against lefties has caused many writers to spill a lot of ink. Patrick Mooney recently detailed Rizzo’s growth as a hitter, which began as a simple question to coach Mike Borzello about how pitchers would attack the young Rizzo. After several large mechanical adjustments and hundreds of at-bats, Rizzo is an elite hitter of lefty pitching.
Other young Cubs might do well to emulate Rizzo’s appetite for improvement, if not his exact adjustments. Unfortunately, Kyle Schwarber’s torn ACL will prevent him from seeing live lefty pitching for an entire season, a setback that also quite possibly squashes his catching prospects. This leaves two righties, Jorge Soler and Addison Russell, as candidates to grow their approach against left-handed pitching. Soler has actually hit worse against lefties than against righties in his sporadic major-league stints, and he’ll have myriad opportunities to garner live at-bats against lefties as he helps fill the outfield vacuum left by Schwarber. A mirror of his struggles versus same-handed pitching, Soler is impotent in the face of left-handed off-speed and breaking pitches: lefties attack Soler with changeups in a full one-quarter of their pitches, and sliders and curves in another quarter, so this does not bode well for the big outfielder. Soler might actually lose playing time against lefties to Matt Szczur if these trends continue.
Russell’s 2015 line versus lefties looks more like a pitcher’s line than a recently graduated top prospect’s line. His ugly .156/.233/.294 performance is almost impossible to replicate, even if the sophomore shortstop’s overall hitting results don’t improve in 2016, so some positive regression should occur. Freakishly, Russell tallied nine doubles and two home runs out of 17 hits against lefties in 2015, so it’s possible that he’ll be a lower average, higher power hitter against left-handers in his career. Russell’s history is less cut-and-dried than Soler’s regarding left-handed pitching, warranting cautious optimism for improvement by Russell.
What about the Cubs’ new bats? Part of the allure of Ben Zobrist is in his switch-hitting ability, which has yielded a good .824 OPS versus lefties in his career, including a very good .926 mark last season in 171 plate appearances between Oakland and Kansas City. Likewise, fellow switch-hitter Dexter Fowler has clobbered lefties for a nearly identical .829 OPS, giving the Cubs four starters, with Rizzo and Kris Bryant, who should top the .800 plateau.
As for Jason Heyward—well, he’s not great when facing like-handed pitching. In his career, the new Cubs outfielder sports a poor .657 OPS versus lefties, and a True Average closer to .250. He did show signs of life last season, with a respectable .274 TAv, but in 2014 he struggled mightily and posted a .206 mark. We still don’t know exactly which Heyward we’re going to get this season, especially if he makes the approach or mechanical changes hinted at this spring, so counting on Heyward to hit lefties is a tricky proposition.
Individual performances aren’t the only way for the club to improve, however; how those pieces fit together is almost equally important. The Cubs have Joe Maddon at the helm and a surplus of positional versatility, and the club will be seeking to optimize the platoon advantage when possible. Again, it might seem obvious, but getting more plate appearances for players who hit lefties well and minimizing the exposure of Montero and possibly Heyward to tough left-handers is vital to the team’s performance.
With Schwarber now out, Matt Szczur will remain on the roster for longer than previously expected; this is actually a boon to the Cubs’ chances versus lefties, as Szczur has crushed them for a .292/.329/.523 line. The Cubs’ two games versus lefties featured a version of that right-handed lineup with Szczur starting over Schwarber in game two, and Ross behind the plate. Soler got the nod in left field against Robbie Ray on Friday night, in Schwarber’s absence. When he returns from the disabled list, Javier Baez might replace Szczur in the lefty-killer lineup, but the thought process will remain, and the personnel allows for better implementation than last season.
Even if Russell and Heyward don’t improve, the Cubs will have the opportunity to deploy a combination of Baez, Zobrist, Szczur, and Soler in an attempt to maximize right-handed plate appearances versus lefties. A longe-durée look at the season might even involve the incorporation of the right-handed Willson Contreras, who can slot in behind the plate against lefty starters—a scenario which increased in probability in the wake of Schwarber’s season-ending injury. Of course, Maddon’s lineups won’t be static, but the skipper could, if he chose to, have a full righty lineup minus Rizzo. This was considerably more difficult in 2015, with Schwarber and the departed Chris Coghlan commanding more plate appearances out of necessity.
There are also circumstantial factors bearing on the Cubs’ 2016 performance against lefties, although they’re of much somewhat lesser importance and are much more difficult to divine this early in the season. As BP Milwaukee contributor Travis Sarandos pointed out to me, the Brewers haven’t started a lefty since late-2013 (Tom Gorzelanny, if you can believe it). In 2015, the NL Central threw lefties against the Cubs 13 times, with eight of those starts from Pittsburgh. Apart from the Pirates’ Francisco Liriano, those clubs feature milquetoast—and some downright bad—southpaws. There’s a chance that the Cubs’ righty lineup can beat up on some replacement-level pitching from Cincinnati and the back end of Pittsburgh’s rotation, as well as the Cardinals’ Jaime Garcia, who they knocked around in the NLDS.
The Cubs’ poor performance against lefties last season, resulting in bottom quintile finishes in key offensive categories, might not disappear entirely this season. At the same time, they don’t need the Ghosts of Lefty No-Hitters Past and Present to visit them in the night to free them from their miserly performance against lefties. The front office didn’t appear to target players expressly for the purpose of constructing better lineups versus lefties, but the addition of Ben Zobrist and greater role of Javier Baez should help Joe Maddon situationally. And, ultimately, if Soler, Russell, or Heyward can improve against lefties, then the Cubs will have to fret much less about getting their left-handed mashers in the lineup.
Lead photo courtesy Mark J. Rebilas—USA Today Sports.